ST. LOUIS — It’s the second-largest private employer in the world, and a rite of passage for some young workers. Fast food restaurants offer great deals at all hours of the day and night, but there’s a hidden cost to the convenience. Daijah Stephenson saw it when she worked at the McDonald’s restaurant in Jennings.

“People coming in with guns and stuff, that’s the hardest thing to see. Or a manager getting into it with a worker, fighting a worker,” said Stephenson.

In some areas, late-night service comes with late-night violence. More than three dozen violent incidents took place at McDonald’s restaurants in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County since 2017. Workers and their advocates are now taking action to demand better training and more protection.

Caught on video

Some of that violence turns into viral videos that make national news. A surveillance video taken in a Houston McDonald’s restaurant in early January showed a man diving through a drive-thru window as an employee runs away. The video shows the man running around the restaurant with a gun before leaving the way he came.

Stephenson said the same thing happened to her when a customer thought she had waited too long for her food.

“She climbed through the window and was trying to fight. And we couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

The drive-thru window has been a literal window of opportunity for robbers in the St. Louis area for years. There have been three robberies at the McDonald’s restaurant on North Tucker since August, all starting with a person entering through the drive-thru window.

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The FBI investigated a string of three drive-thru robberies at area McDonald’s restaurants that happened in a single night in 2016.

Across 57 McDonald’s restaurants in St. Louis City and St. Louis County, there have been 11 shootings, 18 aggravated assaults and eight armed robberies in the last three years.

Most of those incidents happened at just three locations. The restaurant at North Tucker robbed three times through the drive-thru window last year also had the most violent incidents overall. McDonald’s locations on South Jefferson and Jennings Station Road ranked second and third in violence.

Take a look at the interactive map below for reports of aggravated assaults and robberies at area McDonald’s from 2017-2019:

Readiness to react

Stephenson said she didn’t feel prepared to deal with the violence she saw in two years of working at the McDonald’s in Jennings.

“One time the manager was gonna fight a customer and the customer was like, how they would come back with guns and come back to the store with multiple people. So, we wouldn’t know what to do, to duck, to hide, nothing,” she said.

Workers like Stephenson, along with attorneys and labor advocates, insist that some McDonald’s restaurants aren’t training workers to handle the violence workers face.

“I never got trained. I just started working and looking at someone else. We don’t have any type of panic button. We just have a house phone,” said Stephenson.

Last year, the pro-labor non-profit National Employment Law Project—or NELP— published a study that tried to measure violence at McDonald’s restaurants by looking at media coverage. Debbie Berkowitz, the NELP safety program director, said they focused on McDonald’s for a few reasons.

“They have the longest hours of any competitors. And what we’ve known for a very long time, for decades, in the workplace safety field is that late-night retail exposes workers to workplace violence,” said Berkowitz.

Late last year, more than a dozen McDonald’s workers from Chicago filed a lawsuit against the corporation and some franchise owners. They argued that the design of the stores and a lack of training puts workers in danger. McDonald’s has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit in court.

In May, workers at one franchise location in Chicago filed a complaint with OSHA, asking for help to protect them from violence that resulted in 31 calls to 911 in six months. That store added a security guard and gave the managers panic buttons.

In August, McDonald’s USA announced in a press release that it would launch a new training initiative in October that would better prepare restaurant supervisors and crews to respond to violence.

Berkowitz said that what’s in place isn’t enough.

“They should be training every single worker in every single store, whether it be stores they own or the franchisees,” Berkowitz said.

In a statement to 5 On Your Side, McDonald’s Corporation wrote that the mitigating violence training was specifically designed to give employees the tools to defuse “escalating situations.” It also states that McDonald’s offers franchisees the ability to modify restaurant designs and protocols if needed for safety reasons.

A known issue

Back in 2009, OSHA responded to the increased risk that workers face when they serve customers in late-night stores. The agency released a report suggesting ways that fast-food restaurants and other retail employers could do more to improve worker safety.

OSHA recommended that employers should train employees on ways to deal with angry customers. It also suggested installing panic buttons, removing signs that block the view into the store through its windows and keeping a log of violent incidents.

The NELP report suggested that the size of a restaurant’s drive-thru window can put workers in danger. However, the 5 On Your Side I-Team found that the drive-thru windows at area McDonald’s restaurants are generally the same size, and sometimes smaller, than their competitors.

What the I-Team did find from comparing McDonald’s restaurants to other fast food locations in the region is that the restaurants with the most crime don’t have much competition late at night. The three McDonald’s restaurants with the most violent incidents are the only options in their neighborhoods open 24 hours.

The closest 24-hour restaurant to the McDonald’s restaurant on South Jefferson, a Jack in the Box on Gravois, had half as many violent incidents in the last three years.

The violence has encouraged Stephenson to consider a new job. She’s eight months pregnant.

“I’m not sure if I really want to work at McDonald’s again after my baby,” she said. “If anything happens to me, I couldn’t come home to my son.”

McDonald’s Corporation sent this statement to the I-Team:

“We believe every person working in McDonald’s restaurants deserves to do so in a safe environment, and together with our independent franchisees, we continue to take steps to foster safe and respectful workplaces. Franchisees in communities with higher crime levels are able to implement modified restaurant designs and protocols, including installing bulletproof glass and additional security systems and staff where needed, and McDonald’s provides financial partnering where appropriate. We also developed a mitigating violence training in partnership with security experts focused on helping employees recognize indicators of and diffuse escalating situations.”

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